Monday, December 29, 2014

strangest times

How has it been a year since my last Jon Brion show at Largo at the Coronet? I could point to the shrinking middle class and the nation's growing income disparity, but who wants to hear that? Eh, I'll blame sweet, sweet pennant-winning baseball instead. More important, how has it been 10 years of Jon Brion Christmas shows under my belt? That's all on me, and I'll take it.

Wesley SnipesJon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 19, 2014: Have you ever had one of those days that's a tad off? Dinner at a favorite restaurant didn't quite hit the spot (we are spice wimps), then our Largo seat assignments were not the usual chairs. In fact, I hadn't sat so far back since an especially harried night early in the Coronet's revival. Eventually, we gave up our seats entirely and took the back row, which actually had a couple of advantages: The sound is great, and we saw Wesley Snipes in attendance. Also, I can't fault Largo staff, seeing as I hadn't been around for a full year, and they'd been perfect to an extreme degree during last December's massive undertaking. The only real casualty of the night were my notes, which were nowhere near as extensive as normal due to the lack of light. Sob!

Anyway, back to an earlier point: I suspected the numbers had been creeping up over the years, but couldn't confirm them until I got home. I first hit Jon Brion's Christmas show back in 2005, which means this was my 10th outing to Largo for the occasion. I guess you can say I'm in for the long haul. Not only that, my SoCal holiday plans have expanded over the years, including other shows when I can, as well as a favorite podcast taping. Despite the seating situation, I can wholeheartedly reiterate there is no place I'd rather be ahead of the holidays than Los Angeles.

In a night of surprises, you could add Jon's almost skeletal setup to that list. No wires, no drum kit, no vibes, no organs, no electric -- in their place, a handful of acoustic guitars, a few microphones, and a stool or two. My guess is that he and his techs didn't care to drag in the tangle of equipment, only to break it down a few days before the holidays. As we all know, Jon can make a milk carton sound good, so no worries there.

We'd have to wait a bit for Jon's set, as Tom Papa opened the show, following Flanny's intro. Jon took the stage shortly after.

Fortunately, some details don't change at Largo, as Jon opened with a piano number. I heard hints of "Every Time We Say Goodbye," but my word is worthless in that respect. Maybe you can guess at the jazzy feel, though?

Jon then went through several of his own tracks, starting with "Strangest Times" from the I Heart Huckabees soundtrack -- and a fitting theme for our night, if not the whole damn year. On this relative rarity, he went all piano and threw in some vocals for good measure. Remaining on the piano and the soundtrack work, "Strings That Tie to You" came next, then "Happy With You." Jon banged out the long outro on "Happy" on the keys and commented that he needed to relearn it, as he usually played it on bass, which you've probably seen and heard for yourself if you've attended a Jon Brion show in the last 10-odd years.

The guitars beckoned for the ensuing chunk of the gig, starting with "Love of My Life So Far." From our seats, we couldn't see all of Jon's equipment, so imagine our surprise when a fuzzy rhythm track rung out. At first, I thought the sound booth was pumping in the sound, but it slowly became obvious that the addition originated from Jon, as he planted his feet. My guess is that he had some sort of effects setup at his feet, not unlike his usual array, only without all the electric guitars. I'd like to see that again, preferably from a closer vantage point.

Jon opened the door to requests, his first choice one of his own ("Knock Yourself Out"), but the second was a beloved cover, with a requested singalong. "Space Oddity" was as beautiful as ever. I can't tell how much we as an audience contributed, but I think we made our presence known. The consummate collaborator, Jon pitched in with harmonies, and the sound engineers fiddled with delays and treatments to send the song to the stratosphere.

Jon closed out this guitar segment with "Same Thing." You know all the adjustments Jon makes for this song on the piano? He kind of did the same on the guitar, as much as those moves can translate between instruments.

If you know me, you know I keep a few trusty requests in my back pocket, depending on the mood of the show. As it happened, Jon returned to the piano and, on his own volition, went with one of my standbys, "Nothing Between Us" -- like "Same Thing," harkening back to the Grays days. Jon eased in a slightly different bridge and a long instrumental coda.

The next request was another all-time classic, "Jealous Guy." Jon needed a little help on the third verse, and I believe the requester came through. You gotta give it up for a fan who can back up their suggestions with lyrics (which would often disqualify me). We even tried to help out with the whistling bridge, again with varying degrees of success. Jon capped it off with the comment that it was one of the best songs ever. Agreed!

Jon's first guest of the night was David Garza, who'd been absent from Largo for a long time. This blog notes his last appearance as 2008, but don't take my word for it. David and Jon did a song on their own, as Gaby Moreno made her way to the stage, per David's request. Gaby then took the next two songs, her strong voice filling the room. They were both sung in Spanish, but thanks to her stage banter and a little research, I can report the second track was "Peces en el Rio."

Sara Watkins dropped in to help with backing vocals for the latter, then took over for a few titles. The first was "Be My Husband," from the Nina Simone songbook. Sara played her fiddle, of course, but by the end of the song, she had gone a cappella, which is always welcome with her lovely voice.

For her second track, she picked up one of Jon's guitars and attempted "Christmas in Prison," as she had the night before. However, she stumbled on the second or third line. Jon and David both offered improvised alternatives, but finally an audience member prodded her along, aided by his forbidden smartphone. From there, she finished the tune with no extra hints.

Sara volunteered a short preamble for the next song, noting that you were in trouble if your name was Cora or Corey in a folk song. Sure enough, Corey got it all the way to the grave. The treat in this traditional track: Jon playing brushes on the piano.

Jon was now left on his own, and he opted for what sounded like a new original song. The follow-up was a joke in response to his call for requests, when a guy sitting in the last row (in front of us) yelled out a nonsensical imitation of the melee of voices directed at the stage. Also responding to the peanut gallery, Jon finally picked up on his own "Ruin My Day," another request from fans in the last row. Jon closed out the main set back on guitar with "I Believe She's Lying," which featured a beautiful Western-sounding coda.

At the top of the show, Griffee had made no mention of a late set in the Little Room -- kind of a bummer, as Jon has been venturing over again in the last few months (according to my sources). However, Jon finished up the night with an all-Randy Newman encore. Perhaps he caught the final episode of The Colbert Report too? The third song, "Political Science," was sort of a no-brainer, given the truly depressing year. Once more, Jon asked us to sing along, and my well-trained companions did their part (me, not so much).

Finally, Jon tipped his hat to the season, coaxing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" out of the piano. I'm too lazy to go through the old setlists right now, but that may be the only staple of Jon's Christmas shows. (Oops, I take it back -- it isn't.) The song is so lovely in his hands and so welcome, especially in an otherwise irreverent show. I'll take it every December for as long as I can.

Tom Papa opener

-- piano
-- Strangest Times
-- Strings That Tie to You
-- Happy With You
-- Love of My Life So Far
-- Knock Yourself Out
-- Space Oddity
-- Same Thing
-- Nothing Between Us
-- Jealous Guy
-- ? *
-- ? **
-- Peces en el Rio ***
-- Be My Husband ****
-- Christmas in Prison ****
-- Darling Corey ****
-- JB song
-- Tom Waits improv nonsense
-- Ruin My Day
-- I Believe She's Lying

-- Sail Away
-- Dayton, Ohio - 1903
-- Political Science
-- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

* = with David Garza
** = with David Garza and Gaby Moreno
*** = with David Garza, Gaby Moreno, and Sara Watkins
**** = with David Garza and Sara Watkins

Ghosts of Christmas past:
» let your heart be light
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» it's been said many times, many ways
» with soul power
» it's the end of the things you know
» you could say one recovers
» a really good time
» the things you do to keep yourself intact
» i've heard a rumor from ground control

Friday, December 26, 2014

blue christmas

Should you have the luxury of planning a getaway before the holidays, may I suggest a few days in Los Angeles? I'm now even more addicted to this tradition and was glad to squeeze into the Watkins Family Hour at Largo at the Coronet during my most recent visit.

The Watkins Family Hour, Largo at the Coronet, December 17, 2014: I'll admit right now that the title of this post comes from one of two songs I (1) recognized or (2) took note of the request. Even then, it's kind of a lie because Christmas was anything but blue in Los Angeles, either meteorologically or metaphorically.

When I'm in L.A., the Watkins Family Hour tends to be the hors d'oeuvre before the main entree -- or in this week, the palate cleanser between courses. But they are no ordinary snack. In many ways, they seem to have taken on the mantle of collaboration at Largo, with a varied and unexpected mix of talented guests and friends every month. I think they've settled into a workable blueprint for their shows, but as my visits to Largo have been limited, you'll have to forgive me if I repeat common knowledge. Also, I didn't take notes, so don't expect exhaustive coverage of every detail.

Sara and Sean opened the show on their own, then brought out the crack staff of backing artists that Largo regulars have come to know and love: Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinberg, Don Heffington, and Greg Leisz. They kept a low-key presence onstage, but I guarantee that they're all over your record collection, in one combination or another, as you'll discover if you dig into the liner notes.

The first musical guests of the night were Beth Orton and Sam Amidon, along with Ella, a young friend from England (and Beth's helper while Sam was on tour). Confession: I had spied Beth slipping in earlier that evening, so her appearance wasn't a surprise, though it was a delight. Beth is a longtime Largo regular dating back from the Fairfax days, but I'd never seen her in a guest or a headlining capacity over the years -- this correction was long overdue. As for Sam Amidon, I had missed him (with her) at Solid Sound a few years ago, so chalk up another nice bonus for the evening. They attempted an old Christmas song Sam had learned growing up in Vermont; Beth messed up several times amid giggles before they finally pulled it off. The guests also came together for an a cappella title, their voices melding effortlessly.

The next artist to show up was less of a guest and more like family, as the Watkinses pointed out: Fiona Apple. She was both funny and weird (funnier and weirder?) tonight, rolling out an alternative narrative on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and possible reactions to his ostracization, all wrapped up in a blue streak. When "Rudolph" was called out for his potty mouth, Fiona informed us Rudolph had recently turned 37 and developed self-awareness. Anyway, it all led to "Walkin' After Midnight," a Fiona staple.

By this point, John C. Reilly had made a couple of appearances, first at the top of the show and again during Fiona's set to move the conversation along. Apparently, he's become the emcee of these engagements, offering banter to tie the show together. Befitting his role, he combined music and musings into his spotlight segment. At first, he and Tom Brousseau took one track together, armed with acoustic guitars and sweet harmonies. John also did a song on his own, the Elvis track referenced in the title of this post. I deserve a bonk on the head for this no-brainer, but dammit, that man can sing. (Sorry, I never saw "Chicago"!)

John C. Reilly closed out his set with his version of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," rewritten for Los Angeles. He nailed every detail of the city and the season, tying it all together with a neat little bow that harkened back to his opening statement. Dammit, John C. Reilly, why do you have to be so talented?!

Jackson Browne rounded out the guest list -- the legend at last. He performed two songs, one by Warren Zevon, the other from Doc Watson, and he too got the John C. Reilly treatment. They didn't quite click immediately, but they eventually hit common ground, with Jackson complimenting John's poem from earlier in the night. However, the real treat in this segment was a story from Sean involving Thanksgiving leftovers and Jackson's swimming pool. Talk about a surreal image!

The show's main segment finished with a group singalong of a song I didn't recognize, except there was a lot of Bethlehem in the chorus (no, not that one). However, the evening was still in progress.

That comment I made earlier about the Watkins taking on the Largo mantle? Another strong argument for that claim: They continued the show in the Little Room. Sara and Sean kicked off the proceedings again, soon joined by Benmont, who did a handful of songs at his hosts' insistence. A few guests remained from the main set and made their way to the stage, among them John C. Reilly and Tom Brousseau. I loved being reminded of Tom Brousseau's inherently high lonesome voice and was pleased to see their rapport. I hate missing out such chapters in Largo's evolution, but I love catching up on my visits back.

I can report two specific memories from this part of the show: Sara covering "Christmas in Prison," which I knew only because I heard the request ring out from the audience; and a short discussion of John's tie, his own creation that looked somewhere between a bow tie and a jabot.

The Little Room was packed with fans, staffers, and other Largo guests -- an unusual scene, believe it or not. The reason for their anticipation soon became clear as Jackson Browne came to the stage. He's not a stranger at Largo (again, going back to the Fairfax days), but guessing by the banter, this may have been his Little Room debut. If so, I'm glad I was there.

Hats off to the Watkinses for another full-hearted night of entertainment. The best part? The week was only half over.

See also:
» all this time
» any old time
» been hoping that you'd drop in

Friday, December 12, 2014

here comes the jackpot question in advance

With any luck, I'll be able to salvage this year's gig tally with a few late shows. Aimee Mann kicks off the season with her holiday extravaganza.

Aimee Mann's Christmas Show 2014 The Return of Aimee Mann's Christmas Show, the Fillmore, December 5, 2014: Has it been that long since Aimee brought her Christmas show back to the Bay Area? I know it's still an annual event in Los Angeles, and it's entirely possible I've slept on local dates. But wow, I've missed this highlight of the holiday season!

In Aimee's defense, the Christmas shows have always been a more ambitious affair than your average rock gig and thus require extensive preparation. On stage alone, you could see Christmas ornaments strewn across the floor, a couple boxes of costumes, and more microphones than usual for her band. Then again, the show was advertised as Aimee Mann and friends, following the precedent set by earlier runs.

The show opened with the intro to an old-school TV show called Murder, She Sang, featuring Aimee and Ted Leo as a pair of detectives chasing down perps and solving crimes. The clip bore all of Scharpling's auteur touches, but I'm too lazy to confirm it; surely another blog has the details. (Note: I was wrong! The video was, in fact, directed by Daniel Ralston.) Shortly thereafter, Aimee, Ted, and the Both personnel took the stage.

I have to admit I didn't take notes because I was so appalled and aghast at the bridge-and-tunnel yuppies planted to the side of me (more on them later), so the finer details will go AWOL, but at least there are plenty of highlights to report. As befits a Christmas show, Aimee, Ted, and the band did several Christmas songs, including an old-fashioned English carol and another in tribute to Ted's father ("Little Donkey"?). They even snuck in a couple of original tunes, from the Both and their respective catalogs. Aimee's track was "Save Me," and she apologized for its nonholiday content, but I disagree vehemently. The title alone screams of the season, from both theological and psychological standpoints.

But the bulk of the show hearkened back to that first clip, and early on, Aimee and Ted set up the night's conflict: Aimee's desire to take a break from murder mysteries and Ted's dedication to solving crimes. (Once more, I've reduced a fantastic comic conceit to flat prose. Good job, good effort!) Tim Heidecker (the first guest) forced this point right out of the gate, as he rushed to the stage to report that Santa Claus had been killed backstage. Aimee and Ted would return to the case many times throughout the night, even as they brought the rock.

Aimee Mann's Christmas Show 2014

The aforementioned Tim Heidecker reappeared several times through the show, starting with his own stand-up set. I gotta admit Tim and Eric always went right over my head, but he was fantastic onstage, particularly for shutting up the yuppies for a few minutes. Later, he piped in to remind Aimee and Ted of the police matter awaiting their attention, and he took a couple of musical turns. In one, he starred as the title character in "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and in the other, he represented the Jewish new year alongside Father Time (Aimee) and Baby New Year (Ted) on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

The bona fide musical guest for the night was Susanna Hoffs, formerly of the Bangles and her solo career (and UC Berkeley -- go Bears!). Her first song fit into the holiday theme perfectly: "Hazy Shade of Winter." With help from Aimee and Ted, she also treated us to "Walk Like an Egyptian," but with new lyrics offering a lesson on the Jewish holidays, befitting Susanna's heritage, not unlike Morgan Murphy's Hanukkah rap from a few years ago. I'd recite some lyrics if I could, but all I heard was a throwaway reference to the Maccabees.

Aimee Mann's Christmas Show 2014

Rounding out the guest list, Handsome Jack brought up a random audience member for a pretty cool trick. Bless the woman playing the foil; I would've died from embarrassment.

Ultimately, Ted convinced Aimee to put on her detective coat (literally) and solve the crime. Their secret weapon was a song that would squeeze the truth out of anyone, Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." Elementary, my dear Watson! The duo got their man, then serenaded us to Vince Guaraldi's classic "Christmas Time Is Here."

I've managed to trample the duo's impeccable timing and effortless banter, which was a huge part of the show. Aimee and Ted have been touring for more than a year now, and their connection shows. In their nonmusical moments, they were like an old vaudeville team or a screwball comedy. I could listen to them chatting to one another all night.

Back to the embarrassing yuppies: They squeezed in minutes before the band took the stage, already a few sheets to the wind -- so be it. Then it all went downhill after the first words I heard from them, referring to Aimee: "I hope she's wearing underwear." They were the definition of amateurs, trying to heckle Tim Heidecker and nearly getting into a fight with another couple who swooped in when one of the bridge-and-tunnelers disappeared to get more drinks. At one point, I thought they were going to whip out the credit cards and see whose credit limit was bigger. We later heard that the head fool actually puked on the floor before the show. It brought me right back to a laughably mortifying Wilco show at the Saratoga Mountain Winery -- coincidentally, one of the Aimee's regular venues in the Bay Area. I haven't even mentioned the guy in the front who got kicked out for videotaping the whole show on his camera or yet another interloping woman who tried to throw a pin to Aimee onstage. (Duh, you send it via the roadie!)

Despite all these shenanigans, Aimee put on arguably her most ambitious Christmas show yet, and the gang lived up to the legend. Someday, when we come to our senses, we may finally realize it ranks up there with other Christmas masterpieces like the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet and the original Star Wars Holiday Special.

See also:
» if there's a star above
» unless you hate baby jesus
» it's not going to stop